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Hometown Friday nights gone national

Published Sep. 2, 2005

It used to be that nothing was bigger than the local high school football game between Homecoming rivals. Now, like Troy falling to a gimmick after a decade-long siege, that innocent era officially ended a week ago Friday night, with the first nationally televised high school football game.

The contest, between De La Salle of Concord, Calif., and Evangel Christian Academy of Shreveport, La., was the final victory of professionalization, commercialization and, most of all, nationalization over a game that has always been proudly, passionately home-grown.

In a sense, one can see the football game as the third and final step in a process pushed by pollsters, fans, coaches and TV executives in recent years. The first step came in 2001, when De La Salle, then the holder of a 116-game unbeaten streak, was pitted against Long Beach Poly, which is known as California's "School of the Century" in athletics and has sent more players to the NFL than any other in the country. That game, broadcast on the West Coast and Hawaii, was billed as the first high school "national championship," even though it took place on the fifth week of the season.

It proved to be a great game and pulled a 2.0 Nielsen rating, the highest ever for a high school event. For the first time, a sponsor of the game, Arco, paid the athletic departments of the schools involved. Another sponsor was a company called Student Sports, which calls itself "America's leading high school sports media and marketing company." The company controls a mini-empire of magazines, Internet sites and TV shows; for a fee, student-athletes are allowed to "package comprehensive personal profiles in a format that provides useful and easy to analyze information for recruiters" in its publications.

The second step was last December's ESPN2 national broadcast of a basketball game involving St. Vincent-St. Mary High School of Akron, Ohio, and its star, LeBron James. It pulled in a nationwide 1.97 Nielsen rating, and helped turn James' truncated senior year into a coronation processional to the NBA lottery.

And given the similar commercial success of the De La Salle-Evangel game, the foundation has been laid for a national playoff system along the lines of college football's Bowl Championship Series. Indeed, a new all-football network, TFN, will be showing four high school games later this season.

Yes, in our media-dominated culture, this all might seem inevitable. But there is much to be concerned about, and regret, in this marketing juggernaut. Should high schools abandon their local conferences, as De La Salle and Evangel Christian have done, to schedule ever-bigger showdowns? Should athletes be cajoled into paying to have themselves listed on recruiting sites like those run by Student Sports?

Do we really need to hear sports anchors discussing the academic failures of high school student-athletes, as they did during De La Salle-Evangel game? Do we need commentators describing certain programs as "pipelines" to a Division I scholarship, which many a sports-obsessed parent will take as a call to move, even thousands of miles away, for the sake of Junior's future pro career?

The coach at De La Salle, Bob Ladouceur, is a religion teacher with a famously spiritual approach to the game and life, but he's in the minority. Far more common are the winning-means-everything coaches, like the one in Mission Viejo, Calif., who runs an elite quarterback camp in the off-season, which has ensured a steady stream of talented players onto his team. (This coach was also caught sneaking illegal footballs, specially prepared for his field goal kicker, into a championship game.)

Evangel Christian has won eight state titles and one "mythical national championship" since opening in 1989. It represents the future: a 300-student high school that seems to have been created for its football program, rather than the other way around. Criticized for its recruiting practices, roiled when its coach took a year's leave after he was accused of sexual abuse, eager to play out-of-state powerhouses, Evangel comes across as a prototype of a gladiatorial marketing machine.

With cases of steroid and supplement abuse at the secondary-school level now being confirmed, with coaches and parents routinely engaged in recruiting shell games, and with a new kind of Semi-Pro High School on the horizon, the amateurish local game now seems passe. Which is, let it be said, a shame _ even if I must also admit to having enjoyed De La Salle's old-school 27-10 demolition of the upstarts from Evangel.

+ Don Wallace is author of One Great Game: Two Teams, Two Dreams, in the First-Ever National Championship High School Football Game. +

The New York Times